Wednesday, February 09, 2011

About The Administration's High Speed Rail Bet

This is far from the first time that a president has offered up promises of a high speed rail network. It's not the first time that President Barack Obama or Vice President Joe Biden have promoted a high speed rail infrastructure package since they took office.

Their latest proposal to spend $53 billion over six years is another symptom of the dysfunctional nature of passenger rail in the US.

The problem is that the money isn't being focused on where it would do the most good or where high speed rail is viable. It's going to where it would garner sufficient support to secure passage.

The Northeast Corridor (NEC) is the starting and end point for high speed rail in the US. It's the only rail in the country that approaches anything resembling high speed rail, and even then, it's sorely limited by decrepit infrastructure and bottlenecks at key locations. Moreover, it wouldn't even pass for high speed rail in other parts of the world, including Japan, Europe, or China.

To bring the NEC up to European or Japanese standards, it would take a massive infusion of funding well beyond the $53 billion proposed for the entire national rail infrastructure.


Because Amtrak shares rail with commuter trains and freight lines that require much slower service. To build a true high speed rail network, it would require acquiring and building new dedicated high speed rail lines, which are prohibitively expensive in the densely populated NEC.

That's why proposals for high speed rail connecting Las Vegas with coastal California or a central California high speed rail project or Carolina or Florida projects are getting funding - they're cheaper to acquire the necessary rights of way, but they lack the population density to make those projects truly viable.

Yet, the critical infrastructure bottlenecks along the NEC wont get sufficient funding for their replacement. The proposals essentially ignore the NEC needs, even though it's the only Amtrak route that consistently has passenger support and shows signs of being self-supporting.

The Portal Bridge project is as shovel-ready as it gets, and yet it's limping along on the funding trail, and its fate has been linked to the ARC/Gateway tunnel project, even though building a replacement span would allow a 50% increase in speed through the Meadowlands, from 60mph to 90mph, all while improving reliability and eliminating a bottleneck that causes incessant rail congestion, delays, and reliability concerns. That project, by itself is expected to cost nearly $2 billion.

The ARC/Gateway tunnel project would run another $13.5 billion (if not more).

There are similar problems with congestion on the NEC around Baltimore, and additional line issues in Connecticut and outside Boston. Eliminating those bottlenecks and improving infrastructure could significantly cut travel time and make passenger rail an attractive alternative to commuter flights that already clog congested airports that are struggling at or above their rated capacities.

The work on the NEC would solve several problems at once. It would reduce road congestion along the I95 corridor and it would reduce airport congestion that leads to nationwide delays because NYC area airports are struggling at the maximum capacity, often with commuter flights along the NEC.

So, why has the Administration forsaken the NEC? Moreover, it isn't the first time that the Administration has talked about high speed rail and then refused to find the money to make it happen. The Administration refused to come forward with guarantees that the federal government would cover cost overruns on the ARC tunnel, which would allow for increased Amtrak capacity on the NEC. Those cost overruns led to Gov. Christie to kill the $8.7 billion ARC tunnel and then New Jersey Senators Lautenberg and Menendez came out this week with a proposal to spend $13.5 billion to build an Amtrak-led rail tunnel project to Penn Station (that apparently includes the Portal Bridge funding). The federal government continues to send mixed signals, and the Congressional delegations from the NEC need to step forward to demand that the funds go to these critical projects. Their failure to secure funding means that the NEC will limp along - and with it - the nation's best hopes for a truly viable high speed rail network.

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